The land did fold, the hills did swell,
mid valley deep and shallow dell,
twas born fair Avrale,
a Queen she rose, ‘fore days of kings,
she set the Rooks, she made the peace,
upon the Broken Hill,
from Summers North, to Evenings West,
Southern Hearth, and Morning’s Breath,
these fair Towers stand,
these keepers were, the keepers are,
of golden field, forest green, n’ winding vale,
in noble Avrale.
– Every Vale, circa 50 E.R.
The Western Road
Coria 5th, 644 E.R.
A well adorned coach rolled through the early morning streets of Brokhal. Such adornment was appropriate, as it indicated the importance of some of the occupants. It was not however as Laurel would prefer to travel, for he did not thrive on attention the way Mercu did. When he had traveled to Nohrook his visit was to be discrete – to some extent. An adorned royal coach headed north would have fanned fears for any who knew of affairs in Osyrae. Such was the argument he had made, and there had been no protest on that occasion.
Had there been any argument for subtlety on a tour of western Avrale, it was moot, for Mercu insured that it was deemed vital that the young Ladies Ashton be presented in style, as future mages of Avrale. As to the young Ladies in question, they slept that morning, given they had not for much of the previous night.
Mercu himself sat half awake next to the twins, and opposite Laurel. He had claimed, once the effort of loading half sleeping children was past, that it had been his plan all along to keep them subdued and manageable. He had after all done everything he could to fan their natural excitement leading up to the trip, and had paid with his own sleep deprivation in the end. Laurel had been minimally impacted by the whole affair, and as such felt more pity than scorn for his weary companion that morning.
Laurel looked out the window as the coach turned up the northern fork of the road leading away from western Brokhal. He grimaced.
With the knowledge that comes from years of close company, Mercu smiled, and spoke as though reading Laurel’s mind. “You know I’m right, it’s better this way.”
“Oh you are right,” Laurel sighed, “but it’s the principle of it. I hate these trips, and extending them for scenic detours goes against the grain for me.”
“And the reason you hate these trips is the attention, and the demands of the little people.” Mercu laughed. “Much quieter to take the scenic route.”
“You know it’s not the little people,” Laurel muttered.
“Oh but isn’t it?” Mercu said with a shake of his head. “No one more little, and petty than the scattered pretenders to royal authority. So tiresome.”
“And yet you adore their time, and attention,” Laurel counters incredulously.
“The most fun of things, are always tiresome.” Mercu grinned impishly.
“Aren’t they though,” Laurel laughed. “Though, I would be mindful of calling Duke’s petty, and tiresome, given one’s son is sitting up behind you.”
“Charles,” Mercu chimed, “remind me, does your father style himself Duke, or Knight Commander?” There was no answer from the front of the coach, and though it was not visible to anyone but Horence beside him, the already put out young man scowled a bit more. He was happy to be headed west, but not at all thrilled with the company he was being forced to keep, and as such had chosen not to sit inside the coach, next to two girls he was not always on the best of terms with.
After a rather long stretch of Laurel’s disapproving gaze Mercu shrank slightly. “Sorry,” he said with a sigh, “just having a bit of fun.” He paused, thinking of a way to change the subject. “Speaking of tiresome fun,” he said thoughtfully. “Is it just me, or was the Lady Alice positively glowing this morning?”
Laurel considered Mercu shrewdly. “More than you know,” he said with a nod. “I dare say her aura is brighter than it has been in years, since before she gave up her studies.”
“Interesting,” Mercu said leaning forward. “Do you think?” he asked in a hushed tone.
“I suspect, yes,” Laurel nodded.
“How delightful,” Mercu laughed and leaned back.
Laurel hummed slightly, and stroked his beard.
“What hmm?” Mercu prodded.
“Well, look who’s awake,” Laurel said, making every effort to appear not to be dodging the question.
Mercu turned to see Kiannae leaned against the coach door, staring out at the passing scenery.
Kiannae rubbed her eyes. “What time is it?” she asked sleepily.
Laurel held out his hand, and a series of concentric marked rings formed, with a bobbing pyramid at its center that turned, wobbled, and came to rest. “Almost seven,” he said, and waved the intricate configuration away. Kiannae looked back out the window – she had mostly mastered a basic version of the spell herself, but was too drowsy to have tried.
Katrisha shifted, and clung tightly to her sister’s arm, giving no indication she was ready to rouse fully herself. Kiannae rocked her head against her sister’s, and began to draw glowing lines absently in the air. She paid no mind to keep them in tow with her, and so they trailed through the coach past Laurel.
Kiannae grew bored of absent minded magic, and decided to practice the spell Laurel had used to tell the time. She poked, and prodded at it a bit, being uninterested in watching the slow crawl of time, and the pyramid changed its behavior, going from following the sun, to pointing northward. Kiannae scrunched up her face with some confusion. “Why are we going north?” she asked with some surprise.
“Mercu’s idea,” Laurel said restraining mild consternation from his voice. “More scenic route, and I believe he’s arranged a special meeting along the way.”
“What meeting?” Kiannae asked her curiosity piqued.
“I’d rather not say,” Mercu said shrewdly, “I wasn’t able to confirm the arrangement, so it might be nothing more than a pleasant detour.”
Kiannae pouted, but Mercu simply smiled at her, and eventually she gave up, and looked back out the window in a huff. After several more minutes she crossed her arms, and declared, “I’m bored.” The act of which pulled her arm from Katrisha, jostling her awake. Katrisha rubbed her eyes sleepily, and looked around.
“We’ve quite a ways still to Aldermor,” Laurel said taking a breath, and braced for dealing with the girls becoming difficult so soon.
“I have read there was a time when Sylvans lived in Aldermore,” Mercu offered thoughtfully. “A group that had settled down from the highland tribes, that have also long since left Avrale.”
“I thought the Sylvan’s only lived in the great forest,” Kiannae said curiously.
“It was a long time ago,” Mercu nodded, “hundreds of years at least even before the empire came here. “The Sylvans had tribes that extended through the highlands, while the people of Avrale dwelled in the valleys below. Except in Aldermor, where the highlanders would trade with us lowlanders. They say ever so often a child is stillborn there to this day, with adorned ears, or eyes like the two of you.”
“Why did the Sylvan’s leave?” Katrisha asked.
“War,” Mercu said with a frown, “but not between us and them. When Osyrae came the first time into the northern vales, the highland Sylvans deemed themselves above the squabbles of lowlanders. That started some bad blood I think. What I’ve read though said they remained another thirty or so years, till the death of the reigning queen, when her son took the throne. There seems to be consensus that is when the exodus began.”
“Did the new king make them leave?” Kiannae frowned.
“I can’t really say,” Mercu shrugged. “There is no clear record of any direct action, no royal decrees in any of the books, but it was a very very long time ago. So many wars, and changes of power, and the fall of the old tower at Broken Hill. Who knows what happened that long ago.”
Katrisha and Kiannae were clearly displeased by the lack of any real answer, and Mercu shook his head. “What I do have,” he carried on, “is an old story purportedly told by a Sylvan elder of Aldermor, to a scribe of the day.” The two perked up, and Mercu smiled.
“It is said that the goddess Laeune had three children,” Mercu began. “Most lore agrees upon this number, or takes no stance. Amongst them were Brother Wolf, Sister Lynx, and Yaun the Light, the first man – or woman – on this there is contention.”
“Why?” Kiannae asked.
“Many believe Yaun to have been a man,” Mercu said with a shrug, “others contend the first as a man is a preposterous fallacy, as children inevitably resulted. Forget that any which way you slice it, the myth is fraught with problems of how one human became many. This though is the story of how Yaun, the youngest, came to rule.”
“Brother Wolf, and Sister Lynx one day argued over who was mother’s favored child. Each brought before Laeune many gifts hunted from far and wide across the world, trying to earn Laeune’s favor, and spur her to declare a favorite. For such a plan to work they could not tell their mother of their competition. Laeune was pleased at first, but grew weary of her children pestering her with gifts.”
“Seeking quiet and rest, Laeune snuck away while her children scurried off to seek more offerings, and borrowed a boat from Vhale, her grandson, and floated down a river through a wide wood. As she dreamt, at last free to slumber without bother, she wondered upon her youngest, who had long ago begun to wander and rarely returned home.”
“As Laeune’s boat drifted to the base of a great mountain, she found Yaun sunning upon a high rock by the river, and sleepily considering a brilliant gem of many colors in the sun’s light. Laeune asked what her child held, and with a smile Yaun said that it was the most precious of things, a single tear Laeune had cried when Yaun’s first child was born.”
“A tear was a gem?” Kiannae asked incredulously.
“There is a gem named such,” Laurel said thoughtfully, “and it does match the description. It is a clear gem that refracts any light into many colors. Still, it is not an actual tear.”
“The story says otherwise,” Mercu grumbled, and continued. “It so happened that Brother Wolf and Sister Lynx each had come to hunt below the mountain that same day, and heard as Laeune proudly proclaimed Yaun her favorite, for such a treasured moment. Each were infuriated and driven to rage. They were bested by their younger sibling, and each plotted cruel vengeance for the slight.”
“How terrible.” Katrisha crossed her arms and pursed her lips.
“Days later, Yaun strode the forest that was home to the eldest children of man, unaware of cold calculating eyes that watched her every step. Nor were Brother Wolf or Sister Lynx aware they stalked the same prey. As Wolf and Lynx pounced, they found themselves entwined with one another, and not their intended victim. Yet anger fueled their fight even more, and their wounds were grievous.”
“There was much shame when Wolf and Lynx each woke to find their wounds tended by Yaun. They could see in sad eyes, that Yaun knew what they had tried to do. Nonetheless Yaun cared for each with such compassion. Laeune, who had been dwelling near had seen the whole affair, and interceded upon Yaun’s behalf, misguiding her wrathful children to attack one another and not her most beloved.”
“Later, when Yaun was away, Laeune came before Wolf and Lynx. She told them what she knew, and proclaimed that, ‘Never shall you, or your heirs rein. Though I still love you, you have proven unworthy – but this one, whom you sought to harm, has shown you kindness. To Yaun’s heirs I leave the all the world where my light falls. Ever shall you pay your debt, as servant, and protector to Yaun’s blood, and in such you shall regain my respect.’”
“What did that have to do with the Sylvan’s leaving Aldermor?” Kiannae protested.
“It was a good enough story I suppose,” Katrisha consented, “but yes, what was the point?”
“Well,” Mercu laughed, “you see that is the story as I first read it, but I am told there is more.”
“Well?” Kiannae prodded.
“I knew a man,” Mercu answered, “a good fellow, though I must admit when I first met him I mistook him for a woman.”
“Did you now?” Laurel laughed.
Mercu gave Laurel a snide smile. “He was a generation or so removed from the Sylvan lands, but his family kept some traditions alive. I got him talking over drinks, that I bought in apology for my aforementioned mistake. I’ll admit precisely how the topic came up I’m hazy, there were quite a few drinks involved.”
Laurel clearly repressed another laugh, and Mercu continued. “At any rate, he said that the story, as he knew it, goes on to tell that Yaun’s children grew arrogant, and did not learn the lesson of Wolf and Lynx. They set upon each other, and warred, and did many terrible things. So it was that the Lynx’s children left the lands of men. For you see – the Sylvans are the Lynx in the fable.”
“That’s why our eyes are the way they are?” Kiannae asked.
“We are part cat?” Katrisha laughed. “Kat! My name is Kat! Is it true?”
“Well,” Laurel interjected, “that is the common wisdom, with what evidence there is. Sylvans do normally bare both the slit eyes, and pointed tufted ears of a Lynx. Half blood’s such as you two, and your brother tend to lack the ears, though you all, particularly Wren do have a slight point.”
Katrisha ran her fingers over her ear, and nodded.
“One in a few hundred they say are born with fur, and decidedly feline features, maybe even a tail – which leads many to believe that ‘shaper’ magic was involved, that at some point in the past they made themselves part cat.”
“Why?” Kiannae asked scrunching her brow.
“Haven’t a clue.” Laurel shrugged. “It’s not even fully agreed upon theory. The Sylvans by all account have nothing to say on the matter, they simply consider themselves to be, as they are. Though I did once hear a man from Napir call them ‘the children of the wolves, and the cats.’”
“Wolves?” Katrisha asked a bit perplexed.
“There is another Sylvan forest, far to the east past Lycia,” Laurel answered stroking his beard, “More reclusive even than those who live to our north. Purportedly they lack the slit eyes, but have even more pronounced ears – and there are tales of great, hulking wolf men among them. I’ve never met one, nor do I know anyone who has.”
“But you were just talking about Napir,” Kiannae protested.
“Ah, yes,” Laurel said with a nod. “In the high passes, and south from the Storm Peak in Napir live small mixed tribes, purportedly of both breeds, but their bloodlines have been thinned with each other, and the common folk of the land. Still, even amongst these are tall tales of ‘great lions’, and ‘mighty wolves.’ I couldn’t tell you if they are any more than tales though.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Aldermor was a small village, which seems to cling tenaciously to the edge on a wide raised tract of land that looked out over a very broad stretch of the local vale. Fields stretched as far as the eye could see below, but only a few scattered alder trees broke up the rocky, overgrown area between the village, and the higher hills behind it. Even the wild shrubs, and grasses seemed slightly sickly, and it was reasonable to assume the locals had long decided this land was of no use to try and cultivate, but a passable place for a village overlooking the fertile lands below.
Everyone but Horence had disembarked from the coach, which he had lead on across town to arrange a place to park it, and stable the horses. Even the adults had rarely visited the quiet town, and all examined the area in more detail.
A long, freshly worn path lead off the main road from where they stood, to a far edge of the highland, where a small grove of trees stood beside the framework, and half finished walls of a large new structure. It rose defiantly where only crumbled low stone walls, and ancient foundations stood about. This structure seemed odd, out of place even, but it meant little to the twins, who quickly lost interest in it.
Charles seemed slightly more affected by the sight, which caught Katrisha’s curiosity for a moment before she recognized a woman in white, half surrounded by villagers. She tugged at her sister’s sleeve, and then ran off towards Renae. Kiannae followed at a more reserved pace, but cocked her head to the side when Katrisha veered off suddenly.
“Wren!” Katrisha yell, and then Kiannae noticed the boy, sitting on a short stone wall behind and to the side of the crowd. At first Kiannae had not recognized her brother, who had let his hair get quite long, and had grown significantly in the past six months.
Wren looked up just in time to be scooped up by his taller sibling. It was rather impressive to watch. Wren was not much smaller than Katrisha, and did not look as though he could be so easily lifted by her – yet she had managed it, complete with spinning him about as she often did in greeting.
“Why aren’t you with your sister?” Charles asked, stepping up behind Kiannae, who had stopped to observe the curious chain of events.
“Why are you even here?” Kiannae asked crossly, as Mercu walked by towards the village shops, giving the pair’s exchange only a passing glance, and Laurel moved on towards Renae.
“I am going to visit my mother,” Charles said tersely. “She lives in Wesrook, with my uncle, and my sister.”
“Yes,” Kiannae sighed, “but why are you here, with us?”
“I am no happier about it than you are,” Charles grumbled. “It was my father’s idea.”
“Whatever for?” Kiannae said shaking her head.
“He said I should be nicer to the two of you,” Charles said uncertainly, as though it wasn’t exactly what he’d been told. Kiannae had never though much more of Charles father, than the boy himself. It seemed like a good thing, but it also seemed out of character, and the hesitation in the way Charles had said it seemed dubious.
Any further thought on the matter was abated as Renae walked up, crouched down, and hugged Kiannae to her. “Hello dear,” she said sweetly, held the girl back out at arm’s length, then looked her up and down. “How are you doing, and who’s your friend?”
“He’s n…” Kiannae started a bit terse, but thought better of it, “he’s Charles,” she finished instead.
“Ah,” Renae said considering the boy again. “Sir Arlen’s son, yes?” Renae asked delicately, the boy had done nothing to earn her ire, but the way he looked at her was not particularly friendly. It was apparent the boy was well aware of his father’s opinion of Renae, and knew who she was. It was less clear how much stock he put in it.
“Yes,” Charles acknowledged, “heir of Wesrook.”
“Ah yes,” Renae said thoughtfully, she had heard pieces of that story. “So it is true what I’ve heard, that your father is the Duke proper, and retains the right to the seat in his absence?” Charles simply nodded. “Curious,” Renae remarked, and stood, taking Kiannae’s hand. “Come, let us join your sister, and Wren.”
Kiannae glanced back at Charles as they walked away. She had heard Mercu before on the ride, but hadn’t really been paying attention. She wasn’t really sure what to make of it, the annoying boy wasn’t a knight’s son after all. It was worse, he was a duke’s.
“So what are you doing here?” Katrisha asked ruffling Wren’s long hair, which he went about straightening afterword.
“Renae is here to help oversee the construction of a new Cloister,” Wren said as he motioned to the distant half finished building.
“Another?” Katrisha said curiously.
“Yes,” Renae said as she walked up, Kiannae in tow. “Things are getting a bit cramped back home, and the locals have welcomed us here. Though we needed to get assurance of the King’s consent.”
“Why wouldn’t the King approve?” Katrisha asked tilting her head.
“It’s not a question of whether the King would approve,” Renae said thoughtfully, “so much as if he would be willing to make his approval official.”
“Why?” Kiannae asked.
“Not all care much for our order,” Renae said with a forced smile.
“Why?” Katrisha prodded in turn. There had always been hints on the matter, but never answers.
“To be honest, I often wonder myself,” Renae said with a sigh. She glanced at Charles, who had walked off in his own direction. She was more than glad he would not do her the service of explaining.
“It’s because our kindness weakens their grip on the people’s hearts,” Wren said bitterly. Everyone looked to Wren a bit curiously. “That’s what Audry’s mother says,” he shrugged.
“She’s probably not wrong,” Renae agreed hesitantly. She wasn’t happy to have the girl’s opinions stirred so. They showed signs of growing into hot headedness, and expressing open anti-Clarion sentiments would do them no favors. “Still, we grin, and bear life’s troubles – one can only do so much, and those who will not listen, will not be persuaded.”
Laurel walked up then, and looked a bit flustered. “I must…thank you…for bringing that issue to my attention,” he said with some annoyance.
“I’m sorry,” Renae said, somewhat disingenuously. “The boy’s trouble – I’m not keen on saddling the new Matron down here with that kind of fuss, but there is no question he is gifted.”
“No,” Laurel said shaking his head. “I don’t think that would do at all well, another year or two, and he’ll be running amok with any young girl who will give him the time of day. No sense making that easier.”
“Indeed,” Renae said, “though perhaps it would rub off some of the rough edges.”
“I’ve told his grandfather I will speak to Daven personally. I’ve already two apprentices of my own after all,” Laurel said looking to the twins. “I’ve no wish for a third, and a troublemaker at that. Given he’s already whipping up little dust devils on his own, with no training, I suspect he’ll turn a proper enchanter’s education into passable combat magic, and run off with a caravan in a few years. It’s unfortunate the only druids that are easy to get ahold of are so far away, his talent seems suited to their practices.”
“I suspect you are right,” Renae said thoughtfully. “I rather think the boy would do better with us, than Daven though. I believe your predictions of his fate down that road are quite right, that’s a dangerous life to doom him to.”
“He might take to the discipline, and stick around. It would be his choice of course, in the end,” Laurel said somewhat absently. “Still, if you wish to convince the new Matron to take the boy on, it’s little difference to me. It would keep him closer to his mother. I’ve made my promise to speak on his behalf – then perhaps he will have options. Though given the option, I haven’t much doubt what he will choose.”
Katrisha looked back, and forth between the two adults. “You said mother, and grandfather,” she said curiously.
“Hasn’t he a father, why can none of them teach him?” Kiannae chimed in.
Laurel winced. “His father, by all reasonable accounts was a caravan mage who passed through this town once. He’s not been back.”
“How awful,” Katrisha frowned.
“If he’s got his father’s sense, he might be better off in a Cloister,” Laurel sighed. “He’ll be less likely to cause a girl trouble that way.”
“What do you mean?” Kiannae asked.
Laurel looked to be half way through formulating a dodge for that question, when Mercu sauntered up, flowers in hand. This seemed to distract him thoroughly. “I bring a gift, dear lady,” Mercu said with a bow.
Renae didn’t seem quite sure what to do, and finally relented to reach out, and take the flowers. “Aren’t these the one’s the shopkeeper had on the counter?” she asked.
“The same,” Mercu admitted.
“I have no where to put them,” Renae laughed. “What ever were you thinking?”
“Of that darling perplexed look on your face, of course,” Mercu said with an impish grin. “Yet far be it from me to make the lady carry the load. I shall hold them for you until such time as we can find a place to set them properly.” He held out his hand again, and took the flowers back, then proceeded to loop his arm with Renae’s. “Off then we go, on a grand quest for a table!”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
The Inn in Aldermor sat directly on the cliff face, and it’s dining hall protruded in an arc such that windows faced both west, and east down the valley. It gave a lovely view of the sunset down the vale to the west, and surely did as well for sunrise. The three siblings sat side by side, with Katrisha in the middle. Wren was half asleep on her arm. His energy had proved no match for his sisters’ as they explored the old ruins. Though part of Wren’s exhaustion was owed to the fact he had sprained his ankle quite badly, and healed it himself. Renae had found out anyway, and scold him for being reckless.
Laurel would likely have received most of the scolding, had Renae learned that in her absence the children had been allowed to run completely free. Even without having attracted Renae’s ire, Laurel seemed a bit distant, and reserved as the company sat around the table for dinner. The twins for their part were also tired enough to not enquire where Renae and Mercu had been most of the afternoon.
“I’ve been thinking,” Mercu said idly – setting his fork aside. “This gifted boy,” he continued, “what are the odds of him having this gift, when his mother did not?”
“Little less than half,” Laurel said absently. “Statistically speaking of course. Maybe as much as ten percent to be as strong as it obviously is.”
“You think maybe the mother has some Sylvish blood in her?” Mercu pondered.
“Not impossible,” Laurel shrugged. “Though there’s no sign of it. Even a little might have skewed the odds in his favor.”
“Is that why we are so gifted?” Kiannae asked.
“Cause our father was Sylvan?” Katrisha added.
“Your mother was gifted as well,” Laurel said thoughtfully. “From what I know of her, your grandmother was a woman of the Lycian Order. A woman with the gift most often passes it to her children.”
“But not the father?” Katrisha asked curiously.
“Correct,” Laurel nodded. “Both parents contribute to the gift of their children, but conventional wisdom says the mother has the strongest influence on the presence of the gift, while the father has slightly more influence over the strength. Still there are no guarantees. True emergent gifts occur, even strong ones from no appreciable linage.”
“Do gifted parents ever have ungifted children?” Kiannae asked.
“No,” Laurel answered. “If both have the gift it can diminish, but not disappear between generations. That is why most Royal lines still have traces of the gift, since the most adequately prepared individuals at the time of the Council’s founding were gifted. The Council wished to avoid returning to the cycle of mage kings, so they picked those with the best mixture of education, even temper, and where possible weaker gifts.”
“Why didn’t they want gifted people to rule?” Katrisha frowned.
“It seems kind of silly. Wouldn’t the strongest mages make the best kings, and queens?” Kiannae added.
“That was the belief for a very long time,” Mercu interjected. “Yet ruling a kingdom doesn’t require magic. It wasn’t just rulership that the gifted people were pulled out of either, they were also removed from the armies. The Dragon War carried a terrible price – so many mage lines were decimated, so many of the strongest, and most gifted lost – three fifths some say, others claim it was more.”
“So the Council decided,” Laurel said with a nod, “to pull together the surviving mage lines, to help rebuild our numbers.”
“And to discourage them from starting wars, by taking them out of the seats of power,” Mercu added. “After all – mages have power enough to begin with. Make one a King, and it’ll go to their head.”
“As if it wouldn’t go to your head,” Laurel shot back.
“What can I say,” Mercu laughed, “I’m a passionate sort.”
Laurel rolled his eyes, and glanced at Renae, who had seemed uneasy for some time, and was staring out the windows at the sunset. She seemed not to want to make any eye contact, and stopped eating.
“We are what we are,” Laurel said with a sigh – and picked at his plate. “I don’t think the council is wrong in their stance,” he continued, shifting his tone. “Nor do I think they are right. Perhaps it’s a prudent precaution, but those few kingdoms who slipped through the cracks and are still ruled by minor mages…they aren’t causing any more trouble than the rest.”
“I hear the prince of Western Palentine is something of a nuisance,” Mercu retorted.
“Only to his cousin in the East,” Laurel laughed, “and that’s more of a Clarion-Lycian squabble than a magely one. Also, far more political, than volatile. Palentine is almost obnoxiously stable. They bluster, and fuss openly, but behind the scenes things are quite tame.”
“True,” Mercu nodded thoughtfully. “I suppose the bigger problem is a lack of rules regarding Paladin Kings.”
Laurel simply huffed with amusement.
“Excuse me,” Renae said, and looked as though she was about to get up.
Mercu caught her hand gently. “Are you alright, dear Lady?” He glanced at her plate. “You have hardly eaten.”
“You are kind to worry. Thank you, just things on my mind. So much to do.”
“Have we somehow offended?” Mercu pressed.
“Oh – no, not at all. The company is charming, as always – if anything I feel I may have caused some. Regardless, I will be honest that I am stuck upon something I cannot decide if I would rather remember, or forget.”
“Then unless you are truly feeling unwell, perhaps remain for the distraction? Further if you are working yourself hard, you really should eat.”
Renae glanced at Laurel, the twins, and Wren. “Perhaps you are right. I do apologise if I am not talkative.”
“I assure you dear Lady, I can talk for two,” Mercu offered whimsically.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Coria 6th, 644 E.R.
Breakfast brought the same view in reverse as dinner had the previous evening, with the sun shining down the valley from the east. Wren was more awake that morning, while his sisters were the drowsiest ones at the table, with their heads lain on their arms over the table as they waited for food to arrive.
“Will I be joining you on your trip?” Wren asked as Laurel arrived late to the gathering.
“I am told that is the plan,” Laurel nodded, and rolled his head to the side, stretching his neck. “I’ve no objections of course – you should have more time with your sisters.”
Katrisha perked up at this news. “Wren’s coming with us?”
“Yes,” Mercu answered. “I figured he could use a chance to see more of Avrale – so I arranged for Renae to bring him along on her trip here, and spent a good deal of time convincing her to let him join us.”
Renae laughed, and sipped at her cranberry juice. “As if you worked so hard.”
“Enjoying one’s tasks does not make them a lack of work,” Mercu shot back, “it is rather the satisfaction of a job well done, that makes enjoying the work all the more pleasurable.”
“Well,” Renae smirked, “you did do quite well.”
“Must you two?” Laurel said rubbing his eyes tiredly.
Renae looked away, a bit embarrassed, but Mercu for his part casually shrugged. The contrary illusion as to which of the two seemed the elder was for the moment exaggerated. Any question as to the meaning of the exchange from the half awake children was cut off, as food arrived.
“You at least seem in better spirits this morning,” Mercu offered.
“I am, I thank you for encouraging me to stay for dinner last night. Melancholy can become quite treacherous at my age. Truly, I do not know what I was thinking trying to leave, there is more comfort at this table for what ails me. I lost my daughter so long ago…and never got the chance to know my granddaughter.”
“I did not know you had a child,” Laurel commented, “or had lost her. My condolences.” That word seemed to make Renae cringe a bit.
“It was well before I met either of you. She was a young woman before I first wandered from Avrale. Neither I, nor my mother could keep her at the Cloister. I have always thought at heart she wanted to be a mage, though I was the one who wandered afar in her absence. When I returned both my mother, and daughter had passed, and my son in law wanted no part of me for his child.”
“That does sound a rough lot,” Mercu offered kindly.
“Were it not for Adria I would have felt entirely alone in the world.”
“Do forgive me if I am impertinent, but it was not a Clarion mater, was it?” Mercu asked. “I wonder only because such squabbles – and they are not always so gentle – were the subject when you thought to leave last night.”
“No – no, nothing quite so…” Renae sighed. “You are not impertinent, I will assure you, but no I would rather not speak of it.”
“Forgive me then,” Mercu offered.
“If there is anything to forgive, it is on my part. Let us eat,” Renae said with soft smile, only slightly forced.
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Wesrook was not the largest city of Avrale, only the third. Yet approaching it from the east, through the vineyards of the Serpent’s Spine, one could be forgiven for mistaking it for the largest city in all the western kingdoms. The castle, and proud tower from which the city took its name sat on a bluff above a sheltered bay. It brought commerce in from the island of Carth to the west, Osyrae and the free cities to the north, and from so far south as Napir.
Wesrook was rich, it was sprawling, and one could hear the clamor of the city in the day, all the way up in the high hills. The view from the high road was like looking at a living map, the winding streets, and clustered buildings laid out below in an intricate web. The impression lingered as well, as the road wound back and forth, a half mile at a time, to descend over five hundred feet to the city below. It was a reminder – if the endless foothills that framed the valleys of the kingdom were not enough – that Avrale was built within a mountain range.
Far off in the distance, across a narrow straight, great hills could be seen to rise out of the mists, with a volcanic crater smoldering at the island’s north end. This was the farthest vantage point visible from any of the roads of the old empire. The distant mists of Carth, as seen from the high road were the things of famous poetry, and paintings. One of which the twins had seen before, though neither could recall precisely where in the castle it hung. It depicted the great eruption of the northern peak over a hundred years prior.
As the coach came lower, closer to the level of the city it became more evident that the tower of Wesrook was not its only prominence. A great gleaming spire rose near the center of the city, much taller than even the highest mansions around it. The structure did not seem to be stone, or even metal – there was only one thing that immediately came to mind from the way it glimmered – glass.
The coach would have been quite cramped, had all its occupants been fully grown. Yet as most were young children, six sat in relative comfort, though Mercu found himself inclined to favor being pressed up against Laurel, giving the slightly gloomy boy to his right a wide berth.
As the twins pointed, and demanded to know what the tower was, Mercu explained. “That is Daven’s Flame – home of the enchanter Daven, perhaps the greatest of his craft alive today. He was once the Arch Enchanter of the Council in Mordove, and one of the richest men of the east.”
“Why does he live here now?” Kiannae asked.
“They say he fell in love with a woman of Carth, Caladine I believe she called herself,” Mercu said sagely, “a trader of magical wares that had traveled far, and wide, in spite of her young age. This enchantress he believed far better than the station in life she happily maintained, and he proposed to her. Something of a scandal really.”
“Did they marry, and move here to be closer to her home?” Katrisha asked.
“The story goes that Daven’s love would not stay in Mordove, and he, an important man, would not leave,” Mercu mused somberly. “Years past before Caladine came again to Mordove, and wounded as his pride was, Daven proposed again, but again she left.”
“So he followed?” Wren asked curiously.
“Not at first, no,” Mercu said. “Daven was a proud man, but pride comes before every fall. Eventually his heart brought him here, to seek the woman he loved. He renounced his seat on the Council, sold his holdings in the east, and came to a foreign land – with no more than a hope. I won’t say he wasn’t a fool, for love makes fools of us all. The woman he sought was a wanderer, and it was years before she returned to Wesrook, on her way home. Daven had settled in well to the city by then, being little worse for wear in riches, or prestige.”
“She said no again, didn’t she?” Katrisha sighed.
“Well,” Mercu laughed, “not precisely. It’s a bit much for even me to believe, but the stories say that she told him if he truly loved her, that he need not follow. That if his love shone as brightly as he claimed, she would see it from the shores of Carth itself.”
“Difficult woman,” Laurel laughed.
“Well,” Mercu mused, “undoubtedly, but it would seem that Daven was as stubborn. It took a few years as I’ve heard it, before inspiration struck him, one night as he watched a light house up the coast. First he had a tall tower built upon the corner of his mansion in the city. This alone was a grandiose act that drew much attention, but he had an exterior frame work fashioned around the tower, which caused even more perplexed rumors. Lastly loads, literally tons of sand were delivered, and he cast out all the workers, and all his servants.”
No one seemed to have anything to say, and Mercu smiled. “They say it happened in one night, that the crazy fool did it all himself. He used magic to forge the sand into pristine, perfect sheets of glass, and set them into to the framework of the tower. In the morning the people gathered around, and looked up at the new gleaming spire in the midst of their city. In the evening it shone brilliantly in the setting sun, like a frozen flame. Days passed, then weeks, then at last a well adorned ship flying the colors of Carth came into port.”
“You see,” Mercu laughed, “the woman Caladine, was not just an enchanter. Caladine was not even her real name, she was Cadinae, a Princess of Carth. She was the youngest of her father’s children, too far from the throne to be a real heir. She had run away when she had been only fifteen, seen the world, crafted her wares, had many lovers. A few she favored above the rest. Only one had followed, only one had finally done something to impress her.”
Mercu paused, enjoyed the silence, and then shrugged. “That’s the story, and by all accounts it is at least mostly true. She married the man who build the glass tower over Wesrook. Though she had gotten on in years by then, her gift was strong, and she was still fertile enough to bare him one son, and a daughter. They live up there, in the tower he built, to this very day.”
“You have at least one thing wrong,” Charles said smugly.
“How would you know?” Katrisha said crossly.
“Because I know Daven,” Charles retorted. “He has done a great deal of work for my mother, and she has been to the royal palace on Carth. She told him once that you could see his “flame” all the way from there, and he told her that he knew, he had meant for it to be visible from the palace.”
“How did he know?” Mercu asked curiously.
Charles pondered for a bit. “He’d been a man of some importance in Mordove, as you say. When a man was caught harassing his…companion of the time, he interrogated him personally. The man was an agent of her father, who had tracked her all the way to Mordove. That was when she left the first time.”
“What a lovely bit of intrigue to the story,” Mercu laughed. “I’ll have to remember that.”
⁃ ◇ ❖ ◇ ⁃
Upon entry, the city of Wesrook was not as clean as it appeared from afar – though it was evident that great efforts were made, as evidenced by men sweeping the streets. One wondered readily if it was truly a complete exercise in futility, or how much dingier things would be without their diligent work.
The three siblings were struck quite thoroughly by deep lustrous bronze skin of the occasional northerner they passed along the way, and almost as surprised by the remarkable pale complexion of those from the far south. Foreign dignitaries were not entirely uncommon at Broken Hill, but none had come from Osyrae, or Napir in the time the twins had resided there.
One man in fine clothing sat on a bench by the roadside, feeding pigeons. His skin was nearly pitch black, a sight even Mercu seemed struck by. After they had passed Mercu explained that the man was surely from the Northern Wastes, and that he had rarely seen one of such pure blood so far south.
Laurel added that peoples of northern climates tended to have darker skin, to endure the sun which did not wane in the winter months. Further that the pale skin of people from Napir was believed to give them some advantage against the long cold nights of their winters.
A fountain square dominated the middle of of the town, directly beneath the gleaming spire of Daven’s Flame that had begun to shimmer orange in the evening sun. They had passed inns, both questionable, and fine, but had not stopped at any. The twins had begun to wonder exactly where they were going, and Wren had simply drifted off on Katrisha’s shoulder after a long day’s ride.
As the coach turned north again, Kiannae was about to ask when Mercu answered the question out of hand. “We will be staying at Wesrook Castle,” he said with a smile, “I am told we will be expected.”
Charles had known his destination from the beginning, and suspected that the others would be coming. He was none the less displeased at the final confirmation. “Mother does love to host guests,” he offered masking his feelings on the matter as best he could.
“The Lady of Wesrook is a lovely woman,” Mercu laughed. “I wish she would visit Broken Hill more often, but something it seems keeps her away.”
Charles glared at Mercu, but said nothing. Mercu simply shrugged the accusatory stare off, and continued. “I’ve never had the privilege of staying in Wesrook tower before, I hear the view is quite stunning.”
“We live in a tower back home,” Kiannae stated dubiously.
“What’s the difference?” Katrisha asked.
“The ocean,” Charles answered before Mercu could.
“It’s not strictly speaking the ocean,” Mercu noted. “Though close enough. Waves still crash against the rocks below the tower.”
“I thought you hadn’t been,” Kiannae protested.
“I’ve been through Wesrook several times in my travels,” Mercu defended himself. “And I’ve slept in ear shot of the ocean many times. The waves here are muted some by Carth blocking the full fury of the sea, but they should still crash quite pleasantly to the shore beneath the cliff – from what I’ve seen passing through before.”
“It is one of the things I miss back home,” Charles said, “the sound of the ocean at night.”